Ktichavank is one of the hidden wonders of Artsakh. Located on a hilltop in the Hadrut region, near the village of Togh, the complex is a testament to the vibrant monastic culture of the region in the medieval period. Ktichavank (alternatively spelled Gtichavank or Gtchavank) consists of a collection of buildings from the 10th through 13th centuries. As you approach the monastery from one of the hiking trails that lead to it, the peak of the main church dome is first visible. The zig-zagging, undulating profile of the roof is immediately captivating, yet more awaits discovery as lower structures slowly reveal themselves. In addition to the primary group of two tall churches and a large entry hall, there are remains of a library, a school, and smaller monastic buildings such as monks’ cells or a monastic dining hall, also known as a refectory. The multitude of buildings around the site of Ktichavank present a rarely preserved view into the complexity of medieval Armenian monastic life.
Many of the buildings still standing at Ktichavnk date to the 10th-13th centuries, but the monastery’s foundation is much earlier. Ktichavank is one of three monasteries in Artsakh founded by St. Gregory the Illuminator, patron saint of the Armenian church. In 301, St. Gregory converted the Armenian king, Trdat, to Christianity. Trdat then declared Christianity the official religion, making Armenia the first Christian nation. In contrast, while the Roman Emperor Constantine I converted to Christianity around 330, the Roman Empire did not make Christianity its official religion until 380! Despite Armenia’s conversion, Artsakh remained outside Christian control, so St. Gregory and his descendants traveled there to spread their faith. Two other monasteries in Artsakh, Dadivank and Amaras, were also founded by St. Gregory, and still stand as monuments to his impact on the Christian heritage of the region. There is also evidence that these monasteries founded by St. Gregory maintained a connection long after the fourth century. An inscription above the doorway of the southern church at Ktichavank states that it was built between 1241-1258 by Sargis and Vrtanes, who were bishops at Amaras.
A Second Act
The historic foundation of Ktichavank is almost overshadowed by its efflorescence centuries later. The site features two large churches to accommodate a sizeable monastic community. While the northern church dates to the 9th or 10th century, the addition of the southern church in the mid-13th century suggests that the community had grown so large, a second church needed to be built to accommodate the monks.
Ktichavank was not only a thriving community of medieval monks, but a learned one. The monastery was home to one of the larger schools in the region. In addition to studying religious and liturgical texts at the school, monks produced and copied manuscripts in the scriptorium. These manuscripts, as well as important historical texts, were stored on site in the monastery’s library.
Ktichavank also benefited from a strong relationship with the local ruling families. This closeness was twofold, both geographic and social. The preeminent castle of the region, Dizak, faces Ktichavank from an adjacent mountain. The princes of Dizak were patrons of Ktichavank, and several of them are buried in the gavit’ of the monastery. The partnership of ruling elites and impressive monasteries is well documented in the medieval period, such as the connection between the French monarchy and the Abbey of Saint-Denis. It is perhaps due to this important patronage that Ktichavank was able to rise to such prominence in the thirteenth century. Likewise, the pious relationship to the monastery bolstered the spiritual footing of the princes. Together, the Dizak princes and Ktichavank joined the power of sword and cross, presenting a united, formidable front to potential adversaries.
The buildings of Ktichavank are rare examples of well-preserved Christian architecture in Artsakh. The north church, the oldest still standing in the complex, draws on earlier building types. The plan of the church is a basilica, a Roman-inspired rectangular building plan, similar to that of the nearby ancient church of Tsitsernavank. Yet, the architects of Ktichavank altered the standard plan by including two semi-circular niches on either side of the altar, creates a more dynamic interior space. The southern church features a charming pleated umbrella roof on the exterior over the central dome. There are also thin relief carvings of crosses on the exterior walls, a minimal but effective decoration on the otherwise unadorned stone. Walking around to the eastern end of the church, you find a quadrangular apse, in contrast to the more semi-circular shape normally surrounding the area of the altar. The angular apse, echoed in V-shaped niches on the south wall, add a sharpness to the architecture first seen in the umbrella dome.
The antechamber to the south church acts as the main point of connection between the existing structures at Ktichavank. These forehalls, known as gavit’s, are usually rectangular rooms with a single architectural space, but at Ktichavank, the gavit’ has an asymmetrical plan of two rectangular bays flanked by a narrow hallway. This unusual shape may reflect the architectural arrangement of the site, or is perhaps specialized to the best the combination of secular and religious functions taking place in the gavit’. The grouping of buildings at Ktichavank adds to the experience of the site, both now and historically. Unlike other monastic complexes, where each church or auxiliary building is free-standing and separated from the others, the buildings at Ktichavank are all interconnected. This aggregate style of building allows seamless movement between the gavit’, northern, and southern churches. In the harsh mountain winters of Artsakh, the unified architecture provides much needed shelter from the elements.
To the present visitor, the fluid interiors of Ktichavank are now scarred with graffiti. Originally the walls would have been covered in multicolored frescoes, only fragments of which remain. An intricately carved khachkar, or cross-stone, stands to the right of the doorway to the south church. At the top, small figures enact biblical scenes, while lace-like vegetal carvings cover the central cross and medallion below. These, too, are marred with graffiti. On the khachkar is an inscription from Vrtanes, who built the church, who donated the cross for the peace of his soul. Despite the desecration, the khachkar still draws you closer, inviting a prayer for the soul of Vrtanes who once walked these same halls.